Traditional windows holding back Middle East VOD

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VOD platforms have the potential to expand the audience for Arabic-language content, but traditional business models are preventing local producers from unlocking their full value, said speakers on a VOD panel at the on-going Dubai Film Market.

Gianluca Chakra, managing partner of regional distributor Front Row Filmed Entertainment, said Arabic films are still not travelling around the region – either in cinemas or on pay-TV networks – and VOD could be the answer to that. However, unlike the North American market, the Middle East has not embraced innovative distribution models such as simultaneous release in theatres and on VOD.

“We would love to adopt that model over here, but the problem is the theatres won’t accept it,” Chakra said. “The other way to make money is to launch films in theatres and then eventually on a TVOD [transactional VOD] basis. But that doesn’t always happen here as the pay-TV window is blocking everything else.”

Abe Aboul Naga, head of digital at pay-TV giant MBC, explained how traditional broadcasters in the region are launching their own on-demand services. MBC operates ad-supported VOD platform Shahid and SVOD platform Shahid Plus.

But he also said that certain types of content will always find their natural home on existing platforms: “The place for movies is the cinema, while TV will always be the platform to watch live sports and reality TV.”

Perihan Abou-Zeid, founder and CEO of Arab-focused North American SVOD platform MoviePigs, said there’s a huge potential audience for Arabic films in North America, but it not easy to reach the Arab diaspora. “It’s a reflection of the market here – not everyone will watch a Yemeni film just because its Arabic language. The diaspora also has high content and service expectations as they’re used to services like Netflix and iTunes.”

Despite the challenges, the Middle East is seeing a growing number of VOD platforms. Starz Play Arabia rolled out across 17 territories in the Middle East and North Africa this April, joining local players such as Icflix and Cinemoz. Netflix is also expected to join the fray early next year.